"One of my neighbors always tells a story of me standing out on the street corner of my house playing fiddle for tips" We chat with Clara Baker
Portland singer-songwriter Clara Baker released her excellent new album recently, utilising the talents of some of the finest roots musicians and producer Shane Leonard. We took a shine to Things That Burn and had the chance to ask Clara about the writing, production, and recording of the album.
Hey Clara, hope you’re doing very well. A simple question to ease you in… what have you been up to today? And where are you right now?
I just got home from touring for five weeks… I was in California, the SE US and Italy! So I’ve been enjoying time at home, catching up on emails and planting my garden. I spent the afternoon planting beets and chard and now I’m making soup. After being gone so long, I really enjoy the simple pleasures when I’m home.
So, please introduce yourself to our lovely readers?
Hey! I’m Clara Baker -- a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Portland, OR.
Tell us a bit about you, what’s your first memory of playing music?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t play music! I grew up in a musical household… My mom loves to sing, and my dad plays guitar and fiddle and my brother and I both play fiddle as well. One of my neighbors always tells a story of me standing out on the street corner of my house playing fiddle with my case open for tips. I think that I was probably 5 or 6. I probably didn’t make many tips, given that we lived on a really quiet street with hardly any car traffic!
What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?
I love so many different kinds of music. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Feist, Donovan Woods, and Aretha Franklin. I’ve been really interested in production, so I’ve found myself listening to a lot of albums lately through the ears of an aspiring producer.
Your new record, Things To Burn, just came out, what can you tell me about it?
This album was really special for me. It’s my second full-length record, and I decided I wanted to work with a producer. I worked with Shane Leonard, who I’ve known for a couple of years. We went to his mom’s house in Wisconsin, turned the living room into a recording studio and tracked the whole thing live to tape right there in the living room. Recording to tape was a unique experience, and recording live without headphones was even better. I felt really present during the whole process.
I love the opening track, the beautiful clean sound of your voice and the double bass, offset against the scratchy guitar, what can you tell me about ‘Things To Burn’?
Thanks so much. I wrote this song on New Years Day, 2017. I had been at a bonfire with friends for New Year's Eve the night before, and someone mentioned to me they were looking for more things to burn in the fire. I thought that made a good lyric, and it struck me and made its way into the song when I was writing the next day. I had just bought an electric guitar and this was the first song I wrote using the electric. I love the way the arrangement turned out on the record.
It seems a bit cheap to ask about the first two songs on the album, like I haven’t listened to it all - I have! - but ‘Doubt’ is another great song, it’s an interesting theme too, how personal is that song to your experience?
Haha! Thank you. I was raised in a religious family, and the concepts of faith and doubt have followed me to adulthood-- not only in the realm of belief and religion, but through relationships, careers and other parts of my life. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to embrace uncertainty as something positive, and find ways that doubt and faith can both be helpful. I wrote this song partly as a reflection on all of this -- how uncertainty and doubt play out through so many different parts of our lives.
Just to show I have listened to the whole record, I also wanted to ask about ‘I Won’t Take My Time With You For Granted’, tell us about that song.
Every year for the past three years I’ve gone on a writing retreat at a cabin in the Burnt Woods of Oregon. (I am actually packing right now to go on the retreat today -- my fourth time). This is a residency that takes place during the wildflower season. I wrote this song on my first trip there. I was writing songs all day and night... exploring the creek, the hills, the paths, the stinging nettle, the cabin, and all of the artwork in the cabin.
I arrived at the cabin on a sunny April day, and was excited to have the time and space (and no distractions of internet or cell service) to create and to write. But within a few minutes I had a wave of dread and self-doubt pour over me, thinking about how I might not have anything to write about. In an attempt to out-smart writer’s block, I went on a walk. I put my feet in the water. I listened to the birds and the leaves rustling through the trees, and this song almost wrote itself. For me, this song is a reminder to slow down, be reflective, and appreciate my life - the little things like the first tulips each spring, and the big things, like the hard rainy winters, and the tougher seasons of life as well.
How do you go about writing (and then choosing) what songs to cut for the album?
I wrote the songs on this album over the course of three years. I knew I wanted help honing in a creative vision, which is why I chose to work with Shane. I sent him about 20 demos, and together we narrowed this album down to these nine songs. To me, the title Things To Burn represents the themes of this album - both letting go of the old and courageously embracing the new... taking risks and moving forward, while acknowledging the impermanence of youth and time. I feel that all of the songs we chose fit nicely within these themes.
And what was the recording process like?
As I mentioned before, we recorded this whole album in a living room of a house in a tiny town in Wisconsin. Shane Leonard, the producer, also played drums/percussion, and we had Courtney Hartman on guitar, Zachariah Hickman on bass and keys, and Brian Joseph engineered the album.
Since we were recording in a house, we all stayed at the house, too. Each day, we'd wake up, make a couple french presses of coffee, take turns making giant breakfasts for the group, maybe take a walk down to the shore of the lake, and then come together to listen while I'd play a song for the group. Shane, as producer, came prepared with ideas for instrumentation and vibe of each songs, and as a group we worked out the details of the arrangements together. Brian, the engineer, set us up with mics, and we tracked each song live to tape (1/2 inch tape on a 16-track tape machine, by the way!) It was a really fun and special way to record.
I love hearing about US towns, so what can you tell me about your hometown?
My hometown is Portland, OR, where I currently live. It is known as a city of roses, a city of bridges (we are on a river) and a city of rain! The song 'Six Days of Rain' is inspired by that. The city has grown a lot since I was a kid, and has become a popular tourist destination. I love that it is so close to the ocean (two hours), the big mountains (one hour) and that there is a lot of access to parks and rivers and nature right here in the city.
What’s coming up for you in 2019?
In a couple weeks I’m headed out for a week to make a record with some friends-- this time in the role of producer. Something that I learned during my week recording Things To Burn with Shane and Brian, is that I’m really interested in audio engineering and producing. I took an Audio Engineering class this spring, and will take another one this fall. Along with continuing to write and tour, I’m very excited to be learning more about engineering and producing, and excited to see where that journey takes me as well.
Also, I just found out that I’m a finalist in the Telluride Troubadour Contest, which means I get to go to Colorado in June and perform/compete at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I’m really excited for that!
Obviously there’s a lot of talk about equality in general at the moment, what’s your experience of being treated differently as a woman in your industry?
It’s something that I experience all the time, but also have to kind of tune out to a certain extent if I want to stay sane. I’ve definitely experienced sexism, belittling, and harassment while I’m just trying to do my job. But I’ve also found a community of other women in the music industry who are also working really hard and doing amazing work, and I try to focus my energy on the positive.
Have you noticed a difference at all in the last 12 or so months?
I’m not sure. I mean there’s definitely a lot of talk about it in the media, and I think that slowly, very slowly, things are starting to shift. I know that now festivals are sort of waking up and realizing that it’s not cool for them to have all men line-ups. And I think more men are having an awareness around the ways that women are treated, and many are becoming better allies.
As I mentioned I’m really interested in audio engineering and production. From what I’ve read, only 2-3% of audio engineers and producers are women. That is insane. Knowing this really inspires me to make this part of my career path. And I’ve already had three or four different (male) engineers reach out to me and offer to mentor me, and I find that really generous and inspiring as well. They’ve all told me that they want to see more women in these roles.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired a lot by nature. I’m inspired by my brother who is a fiddle player living in New Orleans. I’m inspired by my friends-- many of whom I’ve known since I was a little kid. Musically, I take inspiration from guitar players like Dave Rawlings, Julian Lage, and Courtney Hartman. Vocally, I love Joni Mitchell, Feist, and Laura Marling.
If you could recommend one artist to hear this week, who would it be?
Donovan Woods. His album Both Ways is one of my favorite.
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
Hmm.. I can’t think of anything! You asked great questions!
Finally, how do you take your coffee?
Black. Preferably from a french press, but I’m really not picky!
To find out more about Clara you can visit her website. You should also check out her socials.